Updated 03-I-2019

Sir James Swinburne

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Sir James Swinburne5, 7

There are persons in history who established reputations in fields other than lighting but who, nevertheless, also contributed significantly to the development of the incandescent lamp. Such a person was Sir James Swinburne, whose name is most prominent in the field of plastics. This writeup deals mainly with Swinburne's involvement and contributions to the electric incandescent lamp.

James Swinburne was born in Inverness, Scotland on 28 February 1858. He attended Clifton College in Bristol, which was a school especially strong in science.

It is often the case that ones interest in a subject is greatly influenced by the efforts of another. This apparently was the case with Gerard Philips when he was working in a shipyard in Glasgow. Quoting from Heerding9:

"As Gerard Philips was later to record, it was in Scotland, after several years as a mechanical engineer at a shipyard in Glasgow, that the sight of a series of articles on the electric incandescent lamp caused him to 'devote more than normal professional interest to this practical result of the application of electrical engineering'. In the twenty-three articles concerned, which were written by James Swinburne and published in the weekly journal The Electrician between 26 November 1886 and 26 August 1887, all the stages in the manufacture of the incandescent lamp were explained in detail."
It was Kenneth Swan, son of Sir Joseph Swan, who mentioned Swinburne's early association with his father6. He said the following:
"The establishment of a lamp factory in France having been decided upon, he looked around for some one competent to superintend this undertaking. It was not easy to find anyone suitable for the job; for electrical engineers did not exist in those days. Again, however, fortune favoured him in his choice. A young mechanical engineer, James Swinburne (now a Fellow of the Royal Society and eminent as an electrician, consulting engineer, and expert witness) by name, was introduced to him, and Swan, perceiving him to be a man of parts, asked him to undertake it. So Swinburne was given three weeks' intensive training as an electrician at the lamp factory at Newcastle and was then sent out to set up a similar factory in Paris..."

"The factory at Paris was got going after surmounting the same sort of difficulties that beset the commercial manufacture of lamps in Newcastle, e.g., glass-blowers had to be imported from Germany, as French workmen could not work soda glass. By the end of 1881, however, France was being supplied with French-made Swan lamps."

"In 1882 Swan sold his American patents to the Brush Company of Cleveland, U.S.A., and Swinburne went out to assist in starting the manufacture of the Swan lamp there."

The William J. Hammer Historical Collection of Incandescent Electric Lamps is housed in storage at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In that collection are four lamps associated with Sir James Swinburne. These are identified by the numbers 1883-17, 1884-499, 1884-520 and 1885-522. The first number identifies the year of manufacture. The 1883-17 lamp identifies it as a carbon filament lamp with carbon paste clamps, having been made by Swinburne in London. The last three lamps were made by Swinburne at the Hammond Electric Light and Power Company in London.

As mentioned above, the name of James Swinburne is closely associated with the plastics industry. In the following, the early influence of Swinburne in this industry was stated by Kenneth Swan:

"Sir James Swinburne, F.R.S., who, as a young electrical engineer, had taken an active part in introducing the incandescent electric lamp into industrial use, gave me the following information with regard to the use of 'viscose' as the basis of silk manufacture.

"About 1892, shortly after Stearn had established a small plant at Kew for manufacturing carbon filament lamps in accordance with the Swan process, Swinburne met him and asked him how he made his filaments. Stearn told him, 'From chloride of zinc solution of cellulose.' Why don't you use viscose?' suggested Swinburne. 'It is much less tricky to work.' After a few months Stearn came back with a reel of filament made from viscose. Swinburne had seen, in the Inventions Exhibition of 1885, my father's exhibit of 'artificial silk' made from carbon filament material and probably some recollection of it passed through his mind and prompted the further suggestion, 'Why don't you make artificial silk of viscose?' Stearn did not at that time know anything about artificial silk manufacture; so Chardonnet's process (Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, a notable inventor, and pioneer of artificial silk manufacture in France) was explained to him. In a month or two he came back to show Swinburne a beautiful skein of viscose artificial silk and offered him a share in the syndicate he was starting to work the process. After carrying on the manufacture for a short time the syndicate was taken over by Messrs. Courtauld and formed the nucleus of the enormous business which that enterprising firm so successfully developed in the production of 'Rayon'".

British Patents
  1. GB 1883 5159 - Incandescent Electric Lamps
  2. GB 1884 1178 - Incandescent or Glow Lamps
  3. GB 1884 3999 - Filaments for Incandescent Lamps
  4. GB 1884 4000 - Filaments for Incandescent Lamps
  5. GB 1884 4121 - Incandescent Electric Lamps
  6. GB 1884 4271 - Incandescent Electric Lamps
  7. GB 1884 9935 - Holders for Electrical Glowlamps
  8. GB 1885 11421 - Filaments for Electric Glow Lamps
  9. GB 1885 11861 - Electric Glow Lamps
  10. GB 1885 12001 - Carbons for Electric Lamps
  11. GB 1886 5168 - Electric Lighting of Trains
  12. GB 1887 12437 - Electric Lighting
  13. GB 1901 12991 - Electric Lamps
  14. GB 1902 2990 - Incandescent Electric Lamps
  15. GB 1907 9689 - Incandescent Lamps

  1. "Incandescent Lamp Manufacture", J. Swinburne, Electrician, Vol.18, 1887, pp.60-61, 98-99, 121-122, 187-188, 255-256, 286-287, 303-304, 323-324, 346-347, 368-368, 418-419, 462-464, 496-497, 539-540. Vol.19, pp.51-52, 71-72, 117-119, 158-159, 180-181, 201-203, 269-270, 310-312, 331-333.
  2. "The Probable Future of Condensers in Electric Lighting", J. Swinburne, Electrician, Vol.28, 1892, pp.227-228.
  3. "Nernst's Electric Light", J. Swinburne, Electrician, Vol.42, pp.545-546.
  4. "New Incandescent Lamps", J. Swinburne, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.38, pp.211-226. (Discussion pp.226-266).
  5. "Sir Joseph Swan's Electrical Work", J. Swinburne, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.67, pp.291-292.

References & Bibliography
  1. "Swan Incandescent Electric Light Co.", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.23 No.465, 31 March 1897, p.354.
  2. "Sir Joseph Wilson Swan F.R.S.", M.E. Swan & K.R. Swan, Ernest Benn Limited, London, Bouverie House, EC4, pp.82-83, 1929.
  3. "Sir Joseph Swan's Electrical Work", J. Swinburne, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.67, 1929, pp.291-292.
  4. "Sir James Swinburne - British Pioneer in Plastics Development Dies at 100", New York Times, 31 March 1958, p.27, col.4.
  5. "James Swinburne, 1858-1958", F. A. Freeth, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol.5, Feb 1960, pp.253-268.
  6. "In the Days of My Youth - Some Random Reminiscences of My Early Years", Sir Kenneth R. Swan, University Press, Oxford, 1964, p.20
  7. "Sir James Swinburne, Ninth Baronet (1858-1958)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol.53, 2004, pp.494-495.
  8. Catalog of Scientific Papers, Fourth Series, (1884-1900), Vol.XVIII (Q-S), Scarecrow Reprint Corporation, Metuchen, NJ, 1968, pp.1051-1052.
  9. "The History of N. V. Philips' Gloeilampenfabrieken", Vol.1, A. Heerding, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, English translation, 1985, p.63.